Harvard Graduate School of Design
Moment of the Monument
Professor: Jeffrey Schnapp
In collaboration with Julian Wu
How can a monument communicate with children through play?
According to the writer Robert Musil, the fate of monuments is to be “conspicuously inconspicuous.” The PlaySound PlayGround, a monument to the endangered languages of the Caucasus, remains meaningful by being “inconspicuously conspicuous.” The PlaySound encourages active participation and engagement with its subject matter by integrating itself into the daily life of children. Its dual functionality as a monument and a playground creates an ambient learning experience without calling attention to itself. It does not rely on written plagues or static symbols to impart meaning. Rather, it creates a dynamic, interactive atmosphere that orchestrates and accommodates the way that children play.
Children’s stories are often the most effective vehicles for passing on cultural traditions and maintaining an active language. The PlaySound consists of a series of thirty-four grassy hills, alluding to the topographical variety of the region, each referencing an active North Caucasian language and the recently extinct language of Ubykh. Sensors built into each hill detect weight and movement on the playground equipment and activate a sound-scape of the hill’s particular language in ways specific to its degree of endangerment. Voices reciting fables and stories from each language are projected from hidden speakers in the ground. Because the sensors are sensitive to the number of people on the PlaySound at any given time, as well as their relatives positions, the experience of the monument is always different, and every journey taken through it encounters a unique exposure to sound.
The layout of the hills clusters the three language groups together so that children can register their similarities even if they may not understand the languages themselves. The relative height and isolation of each hill correlates to the number of people left who speak each language as their mother tongue. The tallest, steepest hill, located in the center of the playground, represents Ubykh. By delicately privileging the endangered languages by assigning them to higher hills with greater views, the PlaySound hopes to spark curiosity and elevate the status of these languages in the minds of the children. Ultimately, the monument hopes to curtail, and even reverse, the process of language extinction.